I Am the True Vine (A Sermon on John 15:1-17)

A sermon given at Colonial Church on August 11, 2019.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit. If you have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you, abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. Because apart from me, you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers. Such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me so I have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I’ve heard from my Father.

You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

 John 15:1-17


Well, good morning. Let us pray.  

Oh Great I AM, may your Spirit’s breath your great love into every fiber of our beings. Give us courage, strength, humility, and fortitude that we might endure in abiding. For it’s in your name we pray. Amen.


Again- good morning! It’s good to be with you all. As many of you know (though some of you don’t!) we’ve been going through a series this summer on the I AM statements of Jesus that John records in his gospel. We’re getting close to the end of this series, and today, as you heard, the passage that we’re exploring is where Jesus says, “I AM the true vine.”

I wanted to start off by telling you a story. In the late nineties, a film came out entitled American History X. Has anyone seen this film? Ok, so some of us have. Here’s the basic summary: American History X tells the story of a young man whose father was a firefighter and was killed on account of drug violence. And because of his undealt with grief and rage at his dad’s death his grief turned into anger, which left him vulnerable to the manipulation of an older man who told him that the way to fight back and be okay was to join in with a group of white supremacists. The young man is, indeed, comforted and finds solace in the midst of a group of others who rage against the world.[1]

So whenever I hear stories, whether it’s stories of domestic violence, stories about other kinds of violence that we do to one another, in addition to my own grief and pain, one of the questions I often wonder about is: “What happened? What happened and got so broken inside of someone else that they might then inflict violence upon another person?”

I mean, I notice this even in myself. Right now, I’m trying to get a puppy, and Andy, my spouse, who’s wonderful, had some questions about this last night. I mean- he had questions about the puppy—questions about how much it might cost. I mean- how can there be any question but how adorable they all are and which one we are taking home? 

But when Andy started asking me questions, I noticed this thing inside of me, this part of me who doesn’t like being told what to do and experienced pain when I was younger as I felt controlled and manipulated, the part of me who, when pressed, just wants to lash out and be like, “Whatever. I don’t care what you think. I just want a puppy.” Thankfully, last night, instead of reacting out of my pain I said, “I think we should go to bed and talk about this some more tomorrow.” For the truth is that so much of my response and reaction is because Andy was connecting with pain in my own story that makes me then want to defend myself and be protective.

This move towards self-preservation is a normal human response. We all have known different reasons for why we have pain or shame, reasons for why we’re afraid that we’re unworthy or unlovable. And sometimes these reasons result in us engaging in the world in ways that are profoundly violent and harmful. 

Strangely, faith itself can be employed as its own sort of defense, a type of self-preservation designed to keep us safe. And we then lash out of our defenses, but with the shield of God as a sure defense as we think: “If I just attach myself to this God who will then, then that God will smite you.” ‘Cuz violence is justified if God does it on my behalf, right?

That’s one of the ways we can also approach our faith. Faith is the thing that gives us meaning and strength that we believe will prop up our ego and keep us from ever being harmed. And we in the history of the Christian Church have seen some of the legacy and influence of when faith gets employed that way: it leads to genocide, crusades, and religious-based violence. But I’d like to suggest today that there is another way.

The other way of faith, which John again and again invites us into, is one that does not make us strong, but one that, through the encounter and the knowing of the Great I AM births us into new ways of being. This is the way of love, of a love that heals and binds up our wounds, of a Spirit who breathes within our souls and our hearts, inviting us to be the humans that God has fashioned and created and called us each to be.

You may remember earlier this summer, when I first preached on the I AM, I said that there were a couple of significant things about what John is doing by employing the I AM and attributing these sayings to Jesus. One of them is the sense back in the Hebrew Bible, the I AM references to God. When God shows up to Moses in the burning Bush, what does he say? “I AM.”

And John, by telling us these “I AM” statements of Jesus is saying: “Hey folks, Jesus is God. Pay attention!” Right? 

The second thing I suggested was that by saying, “I AM,” it’s a reminder that this life of faith and this following of Jesus is an encounter with YHWY- the God who is the ground of being. In the I AM, we’re profoundly and continually encountered by God in Jesus, right? God shows up in the burning bush to Moses, and God isn’t like, “I AM! Boom! Here’s the list of 484 things with the sub-points that you better make sure you believe in. If you don’t get them all right, then you’re going to go to hell!”

No, God shows up in the burning bush and says, “Take off your sandals, Moses. The ground you’re on is holy.” The bush doesn’t get consumed, and Moses is encountered by God in the midst of the fire who says, “I AM,” and Moses’ life is changed. 

This is the invitation to the way of faith that John is depicting here. An invitation to encounter and be encountered by the love of the Great I AM, who was, and is, and is to come…to be birthed anew and anew by the one who is our source of life, breath, and all things…ionly we can remember and allow ourselves to be encountered by this God. 

So today we come to the passage from John 15, “I am the true vine.” I want to say a few things about this particular passage as part of the invitation that John is issuing in the entire book. Now, unlike some stories where Jesus tells a parable, or it’s a history or an accounting, this is another way of communicating that often appeared in the Jewish texts and community, where there’s an image, a metaphor, and a life application.

We do that in sermons, too, right? Image…life application. That’s what’s going on here in this text. The imagery of the vine was also familiar to the hearers and readers of this text. The vine shows up multiple times in the Jewish scriptures. In Isaiah, and in Ezekiel.

And in this particular passage, God is the wine grower. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. At the beginning of this passage, it starts out by saying, “I am the true vine.” 35 times throughout this book of John, John employs the word true. He wants you to really believe. This isn’t fake truth, this is the real truth. “Pay attention. I am the true vine.” I AM the true this, the true that. John is telling us: Jesus is true…and he will tell us again, just in case we haven’t been paying attention.

In verse five, John talks about Jesus and the vine as a life source, the place where we go and we discover what true life is really about. As we continue through this passage, if you pay attention, and this is a fun thing you can do on your own: when you go through a passage, just notice if words come up frequently. So throughout just this one passage, the words “bear fruit” appear at six times. So clearly bearing fruit is something of importance for John in this passage. He’s wanting us to pay attention.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit. If you have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you, abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. Because apart from me, you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers. Such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me so I have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I’ve heard from my Father.

You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

John 15:1-17 NRSV

And throughout these 17 verses the word “abide” appears eight times (can you find them?). The word “abide” actually appears 40 times in the book of John. Maybe we should pay attention to that, just maybe.

It’s a little bit like how in the movie Good Will Hunting, who has seen that one? There’s a section of the film where the counselor is sitting down with Will, and he keeps saying to him, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” And was Will’s like, “Yeah, yeah. I know.” Again, his counselor says: “Will, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” Finally, Will breaks down.[2]

It’s almost like John knows that we’re human too, and so John says, “Hey, abide. No, really, abide.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “No, abide.” Okay, the point here is “ABIDE. “Are you getting annoyed yet? “Abide.” 

What does it mean to abide? Do you know what it feels like in your body when you’re abiding? Think about that. Abide. Abide. Abide.

In this passage, quite interestingly, there are imperatives that tell us to abideto ask, and to bear fruit. But there’s only one command that shows up in this passage, which is part of why I wanted us to read all 17 verses. What’s the command? Look at the passage again. Love. The only command in this passage is love. That is actually our only job is truly to love: to abide in that love, to stay present in the face of the burning bush of the encounter with the love of God, and let ourselves be held and shaped and transformed and changed.

A few weeks ago, I got to preach on “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And in that passage often it’s translated as, “In my father’s house, there are many rooms.” It actually would be better translated as “abiding places.” Isn’t that cool? There are abiding places that we are called to. The places where we are home.

A friend of mine posted a quote on an Instagram a few weeks ago that read. “Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we have learned here. The spiritual journey is unlearning of fear, and the acceptance of love back into our hearts.”[3] 

For me, in so many ways, if I were going to tell the story about the gospel, I would say that what happened is that we were meant to be at home with God, and that somewhere along the way, our souls and our hearts were wounded. And we forgot where we belonged.

And then God reminds us by taking on human form and dwelling in our midst. “Hey folks, you’re invited to abide…just come home to love.” And that’s what Christ invites us, and that of which John reminds us here: That faith isn’t the thing that just keeps us from fear. Faith isn’t the thing that gives us a list of rules of the 542 things that we’re always going to mess up on. No, faith is the call and the invitation to abide in love, and let it change, transform, heal, and make us new. This is a house with room enough, indeed, for each of us. Room for us to abide and bear fruit.

I love that connection: that as we abide, as we know where we’re held, it actually does something to the way we show up in, because I know some people in here like some good wine, right? The grape doesn’t exist just for itself. Yes, your joy gets complete as a grape, because that’s what you’re meant to do is grow up and be: a good grape. But the grape, the vine that has known the struggle, right, that’s the best kind? Some of you winos are like, “Okay, I’m hearing you now.”

The thing with wine is that it is made rich through struggle. The years that the vines have been, continuing to bear more fruit and more fruit, the more rich and complex their grapes become. If you are the vine your only job is to keep on keeping on. And as you abide and rest, as you trust the pruning and tending your branches by the vine dresser, as you are all that you were meant to be, it results in a wonderfully rich fruit that we get to drink and enjoy.

And likewise, that’s the point of the work of God in our lives and hearts: as we allow love to heal and transform us, we become a people who bear fruit that makes for amazing wine. 

This one of the reasons I’m so excited that this Year of the Good Neighbor, because part of our challenge and invitation and the work we’ll be doing together this year is first about abiding. It’s starting the questions: Who are we called to be? Do we actually, as a congregation, believe that the love of God in Christ calls and invites and challenges and transforms and heals…even us? And then, how does that abiding love invite us to be people who are good fruit? To be people who live love? Because as we abide, we can’t help it, we bear the good fruit of love because we know what it means to have rooted deeply into the love that finds and heals and transforms and redeems us.

I have a key chain. It says “Empowered Women Empower Women.”[4] This is an example of how abiding allows for the bearing of the fruit of love. For as I have been able to experience the freedom and the grace of being who God has made me to be, I am able to celebrate and foster more soil for more women to be fully all that God has made me them to be. This abiding, this knowing of love only produces more; it makes me want all of the kids in our church to become all that God has made them to be. The lie of the world is that there’s not enough for all of us, but in God’s economy, in the economy of abiding, there’s more than enough abundant fruit at this table for everyone to have enough. And we get to join in that faithful witness throughout all time of the people who have been encountered by this God, who then live differently.

And as we embark on the Year of the Good Neighbor, who better to lead us into that than a man who in so many ways in his life lived the invitation to love God with all that he was and to love his neighbor as himself. And he did it in his own way. Let’s watch this trailer this as we think about our invitation to abide and bear fruit.[5]

The call of the great I AM is to abide in this love, to be held by this love, and transformed by this love…a love that invites us, and in fact, I think, allows us to show up differently in the world. 

Lutheran theologian and ethicist Dorothee Sölle writes about the way that love transforms our relationship to our faith and to God from one of just obedience of servants, but to one where, as this passage suggests, we’re children. We’re not ones who are serving some angry God up in the sky, we’re ones who are part of this family of God’s great love. And this also changes then the way we show up in the world. It moves us, she suggests, to solidarity one with another.[6]

This is where the final quote I wanted to share with you a friend also put up on Instagram (which I clearly never go on). She put up this quote from MLK:

One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power, and power a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive. And that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.[7]

And so, during this year in the Year of the Good Neighbor, we’re going to be invited and invite one another, both to abide and to bear fruit. And in a world of partisanship, we’re going to be challenging each other, what does it mean to be church? What does it mean to live in this love of God? In a way that shows up for our neighbors, in a way that we show up for one another, in a way that we allow ourselves to let God show up in our own lives.

We’re called to abide. Let us abide. 

God loves you. Abide. 

Abide.

Abide.

And may the God of all love, heal, and change and transform and empower us to be a people who love our neighbors as we know ourselves loved, bearing this fruit. 

Are you in? I heard that amen. May we indeed be a people who abide and be good neighbors together as we live love. Amen.


[1] Tony Kaye, American History X (Hollywood: New Line Cinema, 1998).

[2] Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting (Los Angeles: Miramax, 1997).

[3] From Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), xxii.

[4] Purchased on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/listing/618955036/empowered-women-empower-women?ref=yr_purchases.

[5] Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Universal City, CA: Focus Features, 2018).

[6] Dorothee Sölle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2001), 36.

[7] Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention (Atlanta, GA): August 16, 1967. Accessed online at: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention.

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